Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Philadelphia officials on Tuesday agreed to make major changes to the city's civil forfeiture policy, including an end to "policing for profit," in which police kept seized assets to pay for law enforcement expenses.
Philadelphia's settlement with the Institute of Justice, a civil rights group that filed the lawsuit against the city on behalf of four people affected by its civil forfeiture policy, limits what can be seized and ensures prompt hearings and creates a $3 million compensation fund for people whose assets have been seized. Those who were not convicted are eligible for a 100 percent reimbursement on the value of their property.
The settlement also ends policing for profit, which will prohibit the District Attorney's Office and Philadelphia Police Department from keeping forfeiture proceeds and using them to pay salaries or other law-enforcement expenses. Instead, seized assets must be directed to community-based drug prevention and treatment programs.
"For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights," said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice and director of its Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. "No more. Today's groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners."
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner was elected last year after running on a platform that included opposition to the city's civil forfeiture policy.
"This is indeed a good day for the city of Philadelphia, because we have turned away from something that was unjust and inappropriate that went on in this city for too long," Krasner told reporters.
For years, Philadelphia law enforcement has been criticized for its high rate of civil forfeiture.
According to the Wall Street Journal, 23,000 Philadelphians have had assets seized by police since August 2012, even if they weren't charged or convicted of a crime. And in 2010, Philadelphia police seized twice as much forfeiture revenue as Brooklyn and Los Angeles Counties combined, despite having a smaller population.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Philadelphia was Chris Sourovelis, who nearly lost his house to civil forfeiture after his son was arrested for $40 worth of drugs in 2014.
"I'm glad that there is finally a measure of justice for people like me who did nothing wrong but still found themselves fighting to keep what was rightly theirs," Sourovelis said. "No one in Philadelphia should ever have to go through the nightmare my family faced."